Dear Future Daisy,
Today is the day after your 3rd birthday, capping off an exciting week in which you:
For as long as you’ve been able to say the words, you’ve been on a one-kid mission: “I can do it,” muttered (and shouted) countless times a day, sometimes with a combination hand-shove to me or daddy. On the surface, you have NO IDEA how it tries the patience. Basic tasks (tooth brushing, putting on your shoes, sitting DOWN at the table to eat a meal instead of standing on the chair or lying down under the chair or planking across the chair or kneeling on the table), are all activities that may or may not be things you are interested in doing at the very moment I ask you to do them. There is just no way to predict. These are all decisions that you take seriously and also treat as an ongoing ever-present test of our parenting mettle. On the other hand, you know it’s all a game. We see the sparkle in your eye when you refuse a task. Your attention span for Chutes & Ladders or “Spill the Beans” is negligible, but you can play toddler mind games with much more dedication that anyone else in the family. You want nothing more than to be near us. All of us. In fact, that’s the only bargaining chip that works one hundred percent of the time. If you think you’re going to get left out or left behind, you will comply. We know we’re probably weeks if not days from your calling our bluff. You are the kid who notes out loud that we are all together, that we are a family, that we’re all eating dinner! Together! As a family! On a day-to-day basis the constant negotiation can be exhausting. Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I love that you go your own way and are developing independence. It’s also kind of scary. Some nights you don’t want a kiss from me or a hug from daddy. You have been very angry with me and shouted (with convincing fury) “You’re not my mommy!” Then, later, you’re just as likely to climb into my lap and pat me in the most casually proprietary tone, “MY mommy.”
You are the snuggliest of doodlebugs. You still fall asleep easiest in my arms, murmuring “mama hold me!” when I try to untangle myself after you’ve drifted off. You sleep with too many stuffed animals: Snuggle Snow, Giraffey, Bunny Rabbit, Fifi, and Teddy. Every night you try to sneak another animal into bed.
You’re strong and tough, resilient and fearless. When someone pulls your hair, you pull back. When we go to the playground, you initiate play with bigger kids who (initially unsure whether they want to play with a pipsqueak), usually acquiesce wholeheartedly. You’re a devil on the zipline, while your brother rides with caution. You flout the conventions of polite society at the dinner table and Townes finds it endlessly entertaining. When you’re misbehaving at dinner, he looks at you with amazement. You still eat with your fingers. You put beans in your ears and belly laugh. You put Play-Doh in your nose. That one wasn’t so funny.
When you get dressed in the morning, lately you’ve taken to smoothing down your shirt or dress and remarking, “I look stylish.” We don’t know where that comes from but I’m ok with “stylish.” You look at your wardrobe with the dispassionate eye of Rachel Zoe, one hand hovering over your options and then with a flourish, “This!” When we go to the park you jump on elevated areas to address the picnickers “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. BOYS AND GIRLS. I HAVE A VERY INPONONE. NOW I’M GOING TO RUN UP THIS HILL.” And then you do. It’s riveting entertainment. We think “imponone” might be a contraction of “important announcement.” But it also might be a word that only you and your imaginary, pink-haired, pink-toothed friend, known oddly as Inspanish, understand. Fair enough.
Perhaps your least favorite activity is getting your hair brushed. I get it. Those curls! You will allow Meema and Elizabeta to tame them into the slicked-down pigtails I remember from my own childhood (why them and not me?), but I secretly prefer your wild side anyway. Memory games and puzzles are your jam. Your giggle makes ME laugh.
As evidence of your combination of uncouth social impropriety and sweetness, at your tiny, extremely impromptu 3rd birthday tea party last night, shortly after one of our dear friends arrived, you accosted her with this pointed accusation: “Gina, did you forgot to bring me a gift?” Then after you opened your modest pile of gifts, you willingly went round and thanked each person for what they brought. You remember the details. You let daddy call you Squeaks most of the time. We love you big girl, little one, our Daisy Jean.
Townes turned 4 today. He is growing up. He prefaces a lot of sentences now with “actually” and he uses it correctly. He also finds things to be “awesome” much of the time. Or rather, “Awesome!” (shouted with absolute conviction.) He corrects Daisy constantly. “Actually Daisy, that’s not a baby penguin. That’s actually a momma penguin. The baby penguin is over here.” He thinks about things. He asks so many questions all day long about how everything works. Sometimes I say, “Let me check to make sure I’m giving you the best answer” as I navigate to google on my phone. If I’m not 100% sure when I give him an answer he is likely to give me a little side eye and say, “I’ll ask daddy when he gets home.” One day last week, he was asking me a question at the dinner table that I was struggling to answer for him and he slowly but deliberately slid my cell phone across the table to me without breaking eye contact or saying a word.
Townes still loves trucks and cars, but he’s also very into puzzles. He likes to “read” the books he’s actually memorized and identify numbers and letters and his own name. Townes recently informed us that he does not like swimming – not one bit. And the truth is that I’m forcing him to swim because, well, safety-- but the truth is I don’t much like swimming. Not one bit. Townes swam with daddy in class for almost three full years, smiling and splashing like a champ. The day we started him on his own in the class they call Pikes – weirdly named for a carnivorous and sometimes cannibalistic fish - how the heck are a bunch of 4-year-olds like a cannibalistic and carnivorous fish, I wonder? I want to make him swim because I almost drowned when I was a kid. We tell him he can’t swim with his cousins if he doesn’t learn to swim on his own. He doesn’t care. He cries during class and physically reaches out to me and Tim as we sit on the bench next to the pool with both arms. His expression is one I have never seen before. It says “abandoned.” We signed him up for t-ball over the weekend but he says he doesn’t want to do that either. I set my jaw and hope he’s just being cautious. We’ll see.
He asks us hard questions now. They learned about dinosaurs in January at school and I wasn’t ready yet for him to ask me questions about death. First, “Mom, the dinosaurs are dead right?” and then later, “Mom. Is my great-grandma dead? That means she’s not coming back, right?” I can see him turning it over in his head as I say, “Yes, buddy. Great-grandma Lillian died. When people die they are still with us because we keep them alive in our imaginations. We tell each other stories about them so they are always with us.” And then, “Mom, are you going to die?” “Yes, buddy. Everybody dies eventually. But not for a very long time.” I had this flashback of this same conversation with my mom so many years ago. Of course, when my mom was talking to me she said we’d see everyone in heaven again someday. And I don’t say that to Townes because I don’t believe we will. I hope his little science-loving heart will take in what I say and believe and then make his own decisions when he is old enough to do so. If he decides he believes in God, I will take him to church.
Over the weekend he started wiping away my kisses. I kiss him on his forehead. Swipe! Giggle! I kiss him on his ear. Dramatic wipe! Giggle. It is adorable. I want him to be more tough in swimming but I hate the thought of him getting tough in that way that boys are expected to get. He wears his cousin Isabelle’s hand-me-down Nikes – they are his FASTEST shoes and they are ruby pink. When we were coming out of the zoo a few weeks ago, a little kid exiting next to us with his day looked over at Townes and said, “Dad. Why is that BOY wearing PINK shoes?” and the dad grimaced wearily at me. Over Christmas, at Target, in the toy aisle he handled the car transporter and told me how much he wanted one. Then he picked up a ray gun of some kind and said, “mom? What is this toy called?” I’m thrilled that he doesn’t know what a gun is and I want to keep that knowledge from him as long as possible. We live in Los Angeles so this seems naïve at best. I want Townes to go to a school where he can meet kids that look like like himself and not like himself and have friends of all shades and it not be any kind of issue outside of our self-consciously diverse little corner of the world. But he’s not going to have as hard of a time in life as a boy with darker skin which is soul-crushing in 2015.
Townes is protective of Daisy. She is still his best friend, thank goodness. He gets overexcited sometimes in that way that makes some people remark “he’s all boy.” At the Superbowl Party we went to yesterday I had to physically remove him from bouncing between two pristine, white sofas like a pinball with a little girl. He likes to shout silliness (recent favorites include “chicken booty!” and anything with “poop.”) Sing a song. Replace key lyrics with word “poop.” You will make Townes and any other toddlers present laugh. I pander to this audience shamelessly. If you had told me four years ago how often I would make obscene fart noises for a reaction all in the service of making a kid laugh someday? I would have told you you’re crazy.
He falls asleep before his head hits the pillow sometimes (it’s almost true-really.) He wears himself out. He says, “Mom? Can you get off my bed now? I want to go to sleep” about 50% of the time. He crumbles into tears sometimes when he can’t do the thing (socks are tricky). He ran from me a few weeks ago, crying, clutching those tricky socks to a dark corner of the house. He didn’t want me to see him struggling.
My buddy. I’m sorry your birthday cake was so lame (it was lame, trust me.) We’ll do better next year. Thanks for planning to share all of your gifts with Daisy without prompting from me or dad. Thanks for continuing to be my little Pancake Monster. Thanks for helping. I'm sorry I don't have all the answers. Keep asking, though. I'll keep trying. Thanks for being yourself, always. I love you to the moon and back and around the sun 365 times.
This post is dedicated to my friend Jackie, who I have known for many years and who writes about her life history on her own blog. I probably won’t make a habit of it, but it was nice to get lost in a little nostalgia this week.
It’s been almost twenty years since I visited the Sistine Chapel and had my first lessons in expectation adjustment. I had been living in Prague teaching English and my mom and dad were concerned that I would be spending my first Christmas far from home totally alone. I think in their imaginations I was sitting in a dark communist block apartment building without a soul to talk to, huddled over an ancient radiator in fingerless gloves, hugging some cheap potato vodka wishing desperately I was back in the States. The truth was a little more complicated, and I was also slightly irritated that they thought I couldn’t handle a holiday on my own (albeit not so irritated that I wasn’t pleased to accept their generosity in bankrolling some holiday travel and company). They sent my younger sister Erin to be my travel companion. I had given careful packing advice, but she got off the airplane in Prague on a misty December day, wearing high –heeled sandals, a white blouse and cropped jeans. I’d estimate it was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I remember clearly there were patches of ice on the tarmac that she had to step over, me holding her up by the elbow as she gingerly teetered into the airport like a geriatric.
In order to counteract the jetlag, my plan was to go directly into town and keep her out way too late, one pub after another, ordering the mythic 35 cent pivo (it existed back then) and chatting up other expats. I was in no hurry to get back to the apartment I was renting because I was busy trying to extricate myself from a chaste and doomed romance I had impulsively started with the very cute, very traditional son of the family I rented a room from. He was an up-and-coming gynecologist (really) with traditional designs on me. By traditional I mean he was auditioning girls to be his wife. I was teaching in a suburb called Michle (Prague 4) and living in a beautiful little hilly district on the south edge of the city called Modřany (Prague 12) with Mirek’s family. He’d take me into Prague on the weekends and we’d do impossibly romantic things like wander through the Vyšehrad cemetery, holding hands and reading the tombstones of such Czech notables as Dvořák, Mucha and Jan Neruda. One weekend we crashed a wedding underway on the banks of the Vltava. We simply strolled right in to the festivities, started dancing, drinking and eating and no one was the wiser. It was magical. It was later when I realized I didn’t want a full-time Czech boyfriend that we started to run into problems. Also, though I was hardly a feminist, it concerned me in the abstract that he and his friends liked to quiz me about the ‘crazy feminist’ women of America. I was obviously more than ready for a trip abroad.
I executed my pub crawl plan and made sure she was practically sleeping sitting up before I brought her back to my place. Erin and I decided on a standard, American-style marathon whip-around Italy. I believe we had about ten days. We decided to spend Christmas in Venice and New Years in Rome. On our arrival in Venice, we realized we’d made a gross miscalculation. Like in the rest of the western world, Christmas is kind of a big deal for the Italians and therefore not much was open by way of tourist attractions. But no worries! We had also managed to stumble into Venice during one of the worst winters Italy had seen in twenty years, rolling into town just behind a terrible rainstorm that had rendered the city completely flooded about a foot under water in places. It had turned the already labyrinthe streets into something almost cartoonishly charming. I’m not sure if they still do this, but in times of severe rain the city would install tables (they stood a couple of feet off the floor) so you could walk above the flood. In the trickier parts of town, wooden boards were haphazardly slung across stairs, the centers buckling and creaking forbiddingly as locals stomped across, sometimes two and three people deep! It felt like a secret treat that not everyone would get to experience and instead of being annoyed by the weather we delighted in the strangeness of it.
We spent Christmas night with some Aussie and Kiwi guys in a freezing medieval convent-turned-hostel, having cobbled together a grocery store Christmas feast. Each time someone would make a run for more wine, it would take what seemed like hours. The problem was both the location and the drinking (difficult for a sober tourist, trying to navigate the back alleys of Venice while inebriated was next to impossible for a bunch of young drunks). We stayed up far too late drinking cheap Italian table wine. The Kiwis were of particular interest to me. At a time in my life when I was actively chasing the next party, they were in the midst of planning the ultimate Millennium New Year’s celebration. The idea was they’d charter a jet for all their friends and family back home in Auckland and would kick off the first party on the ground at midnight there. Then, the jet would take off for Los Angeles where they’d manage a second celebration just in time to officially ring in the New Year on two continents. Erin and I got our obligatory invite, the wine woozily infusing us both with a sense of optimism for these new friendships that would not last into the next week let alone 1999. Nonetheless, we planned to meet up with the Kiwis in Florence and I passed out on the stairwell sometime in the wee small hours of the morning of December 26th. Erin was tasked with putting me to bed in our dorm room on the top bunk. When we cleared out the next day, I realized someone had literally stolen my hat off my head in the night. I decided the thief must have needed it more than I did.
I was oddly disenchanted by Florence, not realizing prior to our arrival that the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance was a little drab up close and personal, with most of the art cloistered inside the various museums around the city. Again, no ill will toward Florence. It was December when we got there, so even the Ponte Vecchio was mostly closed for business. There was a sense that everyone was holed up at home. I have a couple of photo albums filled with images of myself or Erin bundled up in scarves and hats under various arches around the city. We made the classic rookie move of sitting down in the gelato shop and paid something like $8 American for our ice cream rather than taking it to go like a local. Though it would have cost us a fraction of the price, we later mused that walking around in the freezing weather would have been a less attractive option than sitting in the relatively warmer gelato parlour.
We decided to spend some of our precious budget to check out the Uffizi. The highlight of Florence (for me) was that particular museum trip. We chose to attend on a Wednesday, which was clearly a popular day for Italian high school field trips. We noticed early on while queuing up for entrance that we were getting a lot of furtive glances and whispers/giggles. At first, we ignored it/chalked it up to our American-ness (it really did get drummed into us back then how strange and otherworldly we’d seem) We were very naïve and over-invested in our own importance. It quickly became hard to pass off the sort of overwhelming attention we were getting as interest in the foreigner. Also, we had expected and prepared for the fact that Italian men would be giving us mostly unwanted attention, but schoolgirls? That was just weird. As we walked through the various galleries, we started to draw a crowd. Girls were peering at us around corners and tailing us. Finally, as we stood near ‘The Birth of Venus,’ one brave girl approached us and said (in very formal English with very red face) to my sister: “Pardon. Are you Alannis Morrisette?” To which I, in a feat of wit that I have never ever managed to replicate, without missing a beat solemnly said: “Yes. Yes, she is.” The girl fairly swooned and immediately we were engulfed in a small cloud of Italian girls. Erin was forced to answer many questions about Ms. Morrissette and I helped them along, encouraging her to answer gems like: “tell me. What means when you say ‘it’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife?” Yes. Tell us, Alannis. It was 1997. Alannis was huge in Italy. Finally, after about 20 minutes of picture taking and autograph signing, Erin and I looked at one another, burst into a kind of hysterical cackling and raced from the building.
Pretty much everyone we had met in Italy while traveling had impressed upon us the importance of BEING IN ROME for the New Year, and we quickly adjusted our plans to make this happen. I won’t get into too many details about Rome except to say that everything you hear about it is probably true. It’s overwhelming. It’s amazing. It’s filthy. It’s more alive than most places you’ll travel. The people are wonderful. The people are rude. There’s always some sort of strike on. There’s more museums and sights to visit than you can see in a month let alone a few days. When more seasoned travelers would hear our itinerary, they’d warn us to not risk museum fatigue. We didn’t really listen. I will say, however, that we made sure to schedule a visit to the Sistine Chapel early in the proceedings so as to come to this bucket list sight with 100% confidence that we’d be seeing it sans museum fatigue. Of course, they’re smart over there at the Vatican. In my recollection, we had to choose a style of tour, and the tours were color coded with a painted line in the ground in front of you. You follow the color of your line to complete your tour. While there must have been a ‘Sistine Chapel Only’ line, we were probably over-ambitious. After all, we were products of the parochial school system. One of the only ‘must-do’s’ on our list was the procurement of a rosary blessed by the Pope for mom. That was a non-negotiable.
Anyway, we slogged through cavernous rooms of tapestries and goblets and vestments until finally coming to the crown jewel of our tour. I steeled myself to be blown away. And then? We’re ushered in and the interior is miniscule. Positively tiny. Plus, they cram it full of people shoulder to shoulder. Then, every time someone said something - anything – a frustrated guard/docent shushes that person/the entire crowd. For me, the shushing was far more distracting than the awe-filled whispers of the visitors. The chapel was still undergoing renovations at that time, so it was actually pretty spectacular to see some of the unrestored parts of the ceiling alongside the restored frescoes. But overall we were kind of bummed to be herded like so many cattle for approximately 5 minutes, and then hustled out. WTF. It was better to see it in a book.
Anytime I write down my stories, I’m conscious of one thing. My memory is likely riddled with minor and major inaccuracies. If you ask Erin to tell this same story, she glosses over all of the drinking bits and the chatting with other traveler bits and the anecdotal bits and she focuses on the fact that she was on a mission to save me from my unhappy life in the Czech Republic. We both agree that I passed out on a stairwell in Venice. And it turns out that alongside of all the fun I was having that I was actually acutely homesick. But it really had very little to do with home and more to do with the fact that I was unprepared to teach the kids I had signed up to teach and I was looking for a way out. These were not naïve peasant children who were dazzled by my being American. They were privileged high school students at the premier language school in the country and they had a better technical grasp of English grammar than I did. Many of my students, some of them the sons and daughters of diplomats showed up for class with laptops in arm (which was not as common a sight in the States at that time either, I might add). I had dinner in a few homes fancier than any home I have ever been to in the States to this day. I showed up for my first teaching gig under-prepared and overconfident, thinking I could skate by teaching them song lyrics and telling them stories about life in the States. I wound up learning pretty quickly that high school kids in Prague were assholes, but they were assholes just like high school kids were in the States. To add insult to injury they knew I was full of shit.
The parts of the homesickness that I wouldn’t trade even though they were tough at the time had to do with the utter disorientation of not speaking the language. You really don’t realize how privileged you are to be native speakers of English these days because (at least for now) English is the lingua franca. I remember attending a wedding of a colleague and not speaking a word to anyone all night and not understanding a word being spoken. I remember eating my lunch with the rest of the faculty every day and also not speaking a word of English while conversations went on all around me (sometimes about me) in Czech. It was a very lonely time.
I also remember another wedding in which I was asked to be a witness at the Old Town Hall in the center of Prague where the Astronomical Clock draws crowds all day. I wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. It was something the average Prague resident would have been excited to do, and I only had the privilege because the woman I lived with was an attorney (she had something to do legally with the wedding proceedings – both were foreign nationals, I believe). Anyway, these two foreigners had traveled to Prague on a romantic getaway and had wanted to return to marry there. And so they did, and I was a witness.
This year I’ve learned that many things I took to be Gospel were wrong. I’ve started to wonder what percentage of my memories aren’t true at all. Or are only true to me. I want to try and be better about writing things down when they happen to keep a record for our family. Also, the things the kids SAY are irrefutable, so I can take some comfort in that:
This is the year that Townes said:
‘Sorry Daisy!’ with a particular kind of glee. His own almost-four-year-old ‘sorry not sorry.’
This is the year that Daisy said:
‘MY mommy!’ while simultaneously and firmly tapping me on the forehead, staking her claim so there can be no confusion.
This is the year Townes said:
'Mama. Don’t make me laugh. I’m trying to be angry.'
This is the year Daisy sad:
‘Ummmm. I’m not so good at sharing’ when Gabriel asked her for a cracker.
These are the facts. The rest are my memories.
I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’ –Alice, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I write over here on my little blog from time to time. Mostly, I write about my children because I love them to the moon and back and I want to have a record of our lives for them to read someday, and also it is so very easy to write about the people you love. My children are still mostly without guile, though I know it’s only a matter of time before Townes and then Daisy will learn to lie. Or maybe it will be Daisy first, because she seems to already have an edge in that department. It’s utterly ridiculous to say she has street smarts at this point, but I’m tempted. She’s wily. Townes remains an open book - so far. My conversations with our kids are transcriptions, but everything else is an impression. And it’s my Van Gogh. Tim’s might be more of a Cezanne if he wrote his down. Memory is mutable.
This is how I see it. Tim and I, like most married couples with small children have passively witnessed the erosion of some of our friendships. People fall away naturally. Your single friends without kids continue on singling through life, going to movies and out to dinner at the drop of a dime, drinking themselves into boozy stupors, calling occasionally to see if you can come out to play, and being generally surprised that you can’t or would rather put the kids to bed than get elbowed by a cocktail waitress while you wait for your drink. Mostly, after a while, those friends turn to vapor because people like to have a two-way-street kind of situation in their friendships. A few outliers continue to work at keeping up their end of the bargain, even when you, exhausted by your beloved little people have long ceased to carry your weight. Those people are saints and we know it and we’re incredibly thankful they stick around at all.
Then, this amazing thing happens where formerly single people (or childless people) suddenly procreate (it always comes out of left field). Suddenly, they whizz back into your atmosphere almost exactly like a shooting star. That is a beautiful thing for a lot of reasons. So things ebb and flow, but through it all, you believe you know a person.
Tim and I have been together for almost five years. This is a long time in my romantic history. I’m actually not at all sure what I expected marriage to be other than another great adventure, which it certainly has been so far. I never aspired to be married as a destination. In fact, when we got together I was pretty sure I was going to gently into that good night all by my lonesome. Later, I learned that Tim had a similar path plotted for himself. And then we fell in love. Our love story is the same as every other love story, and it is nothing like any other love story. I still blush and grow sentimental and have not forgotten who I was in our courtship or how my entire body and soul seemed to hum whenever he was near (really!) But now we are married and things are not the way they were. You transfer the heady, narcotic feels for each other to your kids and that is fine. Not ok fine, but fine as in exceptional, splendid, superlative, wonderful. I have a secret hope that we will find our way back to a similar crest that we rode in the beginning sometime down the road. Like just about everyone else who has ever had two small children, we need to make more time for one another. There are never enough date nights. And just like all married couples I suppose, we have come to take each other for granted more than we should. But it’s fine. Not fine as in exceptional, splendid, superlative, wonderful. Fine as in ok, fine as in comfortable.
I mention all this now because being centered has never been more important to me. I have never been a grounded person. All of my friends know the stories. I’ve had 634 jobs. I gave away two dogs in my twenties. I careened around the globe, picking up jobs and people, fueled mostly by a kind of inexhaustible desire for other places, an existential curiosity and inability to commit. Also, I did not feel at home in my country. I never appreciated waving a flag the way most people do. When I’d get into arguments with conservative drunks in bars who’d say, “if you don’t like the way we do things here, why don’t you go to some other country,” I knew they were right. And so I’d go for a while. Then when I was abroad, I was never so generous to my countrymen (a lot of the Americans I’d butt heads with at home seemed so small and naïve in a charming way when I was out in the world). I was a gypsy.
I’m not terribly easy on myself (I mean, who is?) but I know I have always been a good listener. People tell me things – sometimes secrets, sometimes their entire life stories very early in our acquaintance. I also know my weaknesses. Reliable was not a word that people would use to describe me. And then, when it seemed least likely to happen, I met my husband and now we have this precious, quiet gift of a life together with our perfect kids. I don’t even miss my wandering ways that much. I miss the friends I made in other countries, but the thought of what I would have to give up to be closer to them (the proximity of grandparents and my sister) makes it difficult to seriously contemplate. And except for a very few people I knew who seem to have been hardwired for a more permanent nomadic existence (what an oxymoron), my fellow wanderers have put down roots as well in their home countries (for the most part).
People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden. -Narrator, Flight Club
And then, suddenly this year, all around us, people have spun off axis at an alarming rate, doing things so out of character for who we thought they were it takes your breath away. I can’t say more than that. But it has caused me to look both inward and outward and reflect a bit. So many people we care about going through such hard times and we just never knew. How could I have been so close to you and not known what you were enduring? How could he do this to her? How did she stand for so little for so long? You'd have to be some sort of monster. You'd have to be blind not to see it. And then, utlimately, I'm not surprised. Because you just never really know someone. It's arrogant to think you do. It's scary if you think about it too much. The knee jerk reaction would be to circle the wagons. There but for the grace of God go I. Bask in the humble brag stance of, “well, thank goodness we’re solid.” “Our house is in order.” But if anything, this year has shown me how fragile it all is. How little we know the people closest to us. How a few false steps can completely run your life off the road. How someone you thought you knew could turn out to be living a lie, or worse. While you’re over here dealing with THIS problem, the fates can be throwing a bigger, more ominous boulder in your path.
It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen. -Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A dear friend of mine from high school has started a very personal blog, sharing intimate details of her adolescence (I’m in there, pseudonymously). Her memories of who I was at a time when I was so unsure of myself have been a revelation to me but could not have come at a more perfect time. Also, reading her blog has made me a little bit cringe-y. Was I the good friend to her that she truly needed when she suffered a devastating loss? Was I so wrapped up in my own silly adolescent nonsense that I let her down? She doesn’t remember it that way, though she is one of the most generous people I know. I wish I could remember as much as she does, even though we’re all at best, unreliable narrators in our own stories. I want to write things down better and more truthfully for Townes and Daisy. I want them to know who I was and am, warts and all. I want them to know who they are to me as best as I can communicate. After I am gone I want them to have these stories to tell even if they ultimately aren’t that interested in them. I want there to be a box of the stories in case they ever wonder about me or our family and want to pull them out, even just for a day. It’s a weird kind of safety net. I know very little about my own parents before I came along. I wish I knew more. I know even less about my grandparents. The stuff that happens to us is part of life. The stuff that we do is something else. I want my kids to know how I felt about things. I need them to know how important our family is to me. How important my sister and mom and dad are to me. Someone recently implied that a troubling incident in our family would be too much, that estrangement offers a sort of refuge from these messy interactions. Until that moment, I’m not sure I realized how my connectedness to my family informs everything I do. It’s who I am. It’s why I like listening. It’s why people tell me stuff. I guess I need to know.
Townes starts school tomorrow. Four unbelievable words. What exactly did I suppose was going to happen? My easy, sensitive boy. He’s been melancholy lately. Not overwhelmingly so, but it’s there. Underneath everything, a bit of weight he carries with him.
He tells us with tears threatening to spill over, “I don’t want to get bigger. I want daddy to always pick me up and give me piggyback rides.” Tim tells him, “I will always pick you up and give you piggyback rides.” He says, “Mama, I know what will make you happy,” when he can see that I am sad. He runs to get Barry the Bear, who resides on Daisy’s big girl bed. Barry is the antidote for everything that ails Daisy and now, because he’s seen how well he works on her, he works for Townes too. He doesn’t work on mama, but Townes doesn’t know that.
I’ve ben trying to prepare him for preschool. I say to him, “Buddy. You’re going to have so much fun. You’re going to make so many friends.” “Please,” I whisper to myself. The closest this atheist heart has ever come to prayer. I feverishly hope it is fun and I wish him so many friends. My own solitary childhood lurks in memory. But I dream that T will be less complicated, not a worrier.
The other day we went to the Echo Park Playground and Daisy played with two little boys who had to have been four or five-years-old. She instigated a game and they sat in an odd little triangle, rolling a miniature soccer ball between them. Townes sat a few feet away from the action, alone. I’m always watching him. “Buddy, what’re you up to?” “Just playing, mom” is the standard response.
Sometimes when we go to “Old Sand” at Elysian Park and meet some new kids, Townes will suddenly assume the role of Activities Director, gently and enthusiastically encouraging a few to play whatever game he’s decided upon. It always surprises me. The younger ones stoically, almost grimly follow his lead (the business of learning to PLAY being a kind of work in it’s own right) while the older kids regard him with arch amusement (who is this little guy?), all half-grins and rosy, dirty cheeks. Most of the time they follow along anyway. The older kids usually have nothing much better to do.
I’ve had my heart broken before, but never like this. How can I already be mourning their departure? We have YEARS. I never understood people’s exhortations about staying childless. The ascetic “this world is not the world we envisioned for our hypothetical children so we chose to abstain, thanks.” The middle-aged man-boy, “I can’t have kids. I can barely take care of myself.” The glib, “I’m an aunt. Best birth control I ever used.” Now that I am on the other side of the street, there is only one reason that resonates. If someone now said to me, “I will not have children because I refuse to have my heart broken millimeter by millimeter for the next, oh rest of my life” I would clasp their hands to mine and give them a shaky, teary grin. That makes perfect sense. Yes. That happens. I now understand what my parents meant when they said to me so many times over the years, “we just want you to be happy.”I used to roll my eyes.
Now it feels raw. Every day. And the days are long. It ain’t easy living with little people. They’re vampires. There is superficial empathy, but we all know the truth. Daisy will sock Townes in the back and then immediately kiss him gently on the head when he starts to wail. T will scream, “Sorry!” gleefully after body checking his sister into the wall. It’s both blessing and curse. They need me all the time.
There are small, perfect moments and they come just when you need them. Our house is tiny and I frequently feel we have outgrown it. I vow never to have another gathering of friends for dinner while we wrangle with our postage stamp sized kitchen. T says to me the other day, “Mama our house is so BIG.” With awe. And just like that our house IS so big. I can say, “Townes who has the biggest eyes?” and he trains those outsized peepers on me and makes them comically enormous. Townes talks a lot about our family. “Mama, you and me and daisy and daddy are a family.” Sometimes he says this as he drifts off to sleep. When I have a hard day, he makes it better without doing a damn thing. He makes dealing with muggles palatable.
Last night I stood in the doorway and watched my tiny man splayed out in his little bed and had an epiphany. He’s enormous. When did that happen? He’s going to need a new bed and soon. He’s been playing soccer with the neighbors and he’s having growing pains in his legs at night. So, his body is betraying his toddler wish to forever stay "little." My heart breaks a little bit more. Because even this is a phase. Soon, he won't be able to grow up fast enough so he can get away from us and become his own person. And when he has that impulse we will know that we have done a good job. And my heart breaks a little more. He’s such a sweet little kid. My heart swells with pride. He asks such silly, inquisitive questions. He calls me “Mommy Shannon Elizabeth Marvin.” He can spell his own name. He is three-years-old. He starts school tomorrow. I’m already preparing myself to let him go.
You know how conventional wisdom suggests the second child in a family gets less – les time, less attention, less (dare I say it) love from parents? Well, now that we have a little perspective I can confirm that the second child definitely does get less focused attention. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Sure, Daisy has had to work harder to get our undivided attention, but a byproduct is an admirable strain of self-confidence and fearlessness. Daisy jumps from daunting heights at the playground with a determined glint in her eye. She runs with her head down and jutted forward, fists tightly clenched behind her like a teeny little self-guided missile. Daisy laughs from the gut. She spits like a sailor. She eats broccoli (little trees) and salsa (Fy-Cee!) She has a farmer’s tan. She will disappear to another room when you’re in the middle of a game and you’ll find her ten minutes later, quietly “weeding a book.” Or else standing atop the dining room table. She eats messy food exclusively with her hands. She will drink milk from a “big girl cup” just like a lady for a week, and then hurl it across the room one night just for kicks. If you put something on a tabletop to get it out of her reach she will simply change course, and skulk off determinedly, “I get a sepstool. I get a sepstool.” She is not afraid to be the smallest kid in the bouncy house. Daisy goes her own way and makes up her own mind (much to Townes’ chagrin). Townes glided through the Terrible Twos, our easy boy. Daisy has thrown a Grand Mal tantrum with standard kicking, screaming and scooting with arched back across the floor at the Grove concierge stand. She has looked at me with what can best be described as murderous rage. She is the opposite of easy. She stomps. She scowls. “Don’t do dat, mommy!” She grins. She will show you her bum. She has fallen into the potty and (after getting over the initial shock) cackled like a maniac while I pulled her out and toweled her off. She can appreciate the absurd in a situation. She dresses herself (pushing my hands away and muttering, “I can do it!”) She can rap: “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head. Uhuh uh huh.” My apologies to Grandmaster Flash and the African-American community-she means no harm. Daisy’s hair is unmanageable. The doctor says she is a little bit young for the smattering of freckles on her cheeks, our vigilant SPF application no match for her melanin production. She gets sweaty. She washes her “pits” in the tubby. She holds her breath underwater with open eyes. Daisy scrapes her knees and her chin. She shrugs off assistance of any kind with a dogged “I can do it.” She pees standing up. She giggles in her sleep. She smiles when she wakes up. She forgives Townes his every transgression against her with a hug and a kiss. She sleeps with BunnyWabbit, FiFi and Barry (the bear). She wears Tim’s shoes around the house. She says, “awwww. It’s cute,” when something is.
Daisy is not aware that as a girl, the world we currently live in puts constraints on acceptable behavior and potential, that there are rules she must follow to get ahead and to avoid being hurt. She doesn’t know that there are forces in her future that will attempt to clip her wings and put her in her place. When I stop to ask myself at what point fearlessness turns to recklessness or when the appropriate time is to start teaching her about limits, I check myself. She will be free.
I was walking in my neighborhood the other day and I stumbled upon six large boxes overflowing with signs. Signs that were just sitting on the curb minding their own business but their business was decidedly curious. Panhandling signs. More to the point, it was a bit like stumbling upon the panhandling sign Valhalla. If someone had decided to open a “signs only” shop catering to the homeless contingency in Los Angeles, they could not have done a better job. This awesomely thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive (if bedraggled) mess of signs I discovered on Logan Street just outside the Gabriela Charter School had a dog-earned and moldering message for whatever kind of beggar you might choose to be. There was the patriotic and immediately guilt-inducing “Homeless Gulf War Vet. Needs work. God Bless.” The suspiciously optimistic “Going back East. Help me on my way.” There were direct pleas in all caps “HOMELESS PLEASE HELP” and more circumspect announcements “Kindness Heals.” Humor was well represented: “Need fuel for private jet. Fuel is expensive,” “Help me get home to Mars,” and multiple riffs on “Why lie? I need a beer.” There were a few politically-minded directives “Department of Homeless Security Checkpoint” and the frankly confrontational “Fuck You. Pay Me.” There was the defiant “I want nothing,” and the blatantly heartbreaking: “Options limited due to poor life decisions.” “Please help me feed my baby.” The one that hit home hardest was “Miracle Needed.” I mean, doesn’t that go without saying?
I’ve always been interested in people's individual stories. It’s a bit of the “there but for the grace of God,” I suppose with people living on the streets. When I was in grad school, I found this amazing apartment that had a former life as a church. I was on a very meager budget and when the real estate agent showed me the place, I was ecstatic. I immediately fell in love with the stained glass windows in my living room and the building’s rustic charm. How could it be so cheap? My first night sleeping there, I found out. The apartment building was directly across the road from the Flagstaff train station and pretty much every freight train traveling to the west coast comes through that town. My little apartment would creak and shimmy every night all night. It was a rough transition with a train coming by every 10-20 minutes, but I got used to it. So much so that it forever gave me the ability to fall asleep in pretty much any circumstance. I can drift off on plane takeoffs, on moving trains, in cars, with just about any amount of noise.
As a byproduct of living this close to the tracks, I watched and sometimes interacted with a nonstop parade of (mostly teenage) rail riders, stowing away illegally on the passing freight trains. Many of them were on their way to San Francisco (probably the Haight), the mecca for all homeless youth since my parents were teens. Most of them had dogs traveling with them too. A lot of them were drug addicts. Most of them were escaping some sort of horrible abuse at home. They were high on what they perceived as freedom. They quoted Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. They had tattoos and piercings and dreadlocks and mohawks. They wore fatigues. They were missing teeth and covered in grime and romance. I still got the feeling that many of them would probably course-correct. That this was a diversion and they might find their way back to a more traditional life at some point. Then there were some that had a certain look – a point of no return 1000-yard stare. I worried about that look.
There were also the homeless alcoholic Indians who would wander onto the railroad tracks once or twice a year to simply lie down and fall asleep. We’d read in the Daily Sun how the train conductor was sounding the horn and pulling the brake but it was never in time. I always wondered if these men (it was always men) were intentionally giving up, or just too sick and tired to care where they rested. You’d see them staggering around during the daylight hours jabbering incoherently to anyone who’d cross their paths. The textbook rheumy gaze got under my skin, always reminding me that with our family history it was a good thing that I stopped drinking when I did. I have Mestizo blood in these veins.
So when I wandered up on the sign carnage this week, I was done. You had me at hello. I needed to know all. Perhaps the weirdest part of the scene was just trying to give it some real-world context. I was kneeling there on the street rifling through all of these signs, giggling and sometimes struggling with a lump in my throat as I just took in the humanity of it all. I imagined the creativity and pluckiness of this hobo 3.0 (let’s call him Bill). This homeless dude who woke up in his tent every morning underneath the 101 and Alvarado* and flipped through his boxes to make a choice as to who he was going to be that day. Was he going to be a Jesus Freak? Did the wind feel like the jaded Angeleno drivers would connect more expediently to a salt of the earth, down on his luck veteran? An alcoholic, well-meaning father just trying to provide for his underage wards? What is the secret sauce to maximize your handout potential?
I imagined him catching a lucky break that morning, suddenly finding himself the surprised but grateful owner of a beat up, but still serviceable ride from one of my bougie neighbors. Let’s call that neighbor Liam. Liam the former bassist and his fiddle-playing girlfriend were renting in Echo Park. After years of struggling, Liam had recently landed his first corporate gig as a music supervisor for a popular television show. They found themselves in the enviable position of being able to purchase a new car. Well, not a new car exactly. A classic car - a 1970 Dodge Charger that cost more than a 2014 Beamer would have. Liam was thrilled to now have the means to buy the car he and his eleven-year-old soul had been dreaming of for years. Rather than selling their late model Volvo wagon to a buddy, in a moment of inspiration he decided to drive over to the underpass and donate his car direct to the people (stopping to thoughtfully gas up). Hence, homeless Bill (also in a moment of optimism) decided to leave his accumulation of signage at the roadside as he certainly would not be needing them anymore. That tank of gas could get him as far as Stockton and his sister’s place if she was still in town. Sky being the limit from there.
But on my walk back home, the cynical/more practical side of me came to a separate but equally (more?) plausible scenario. This is Los Angeles, after all. Filming notifications in my neighborhood are a weekly occurrence. It suddenly seemed much more likely that an absentminded P.A. on location simply forgot to load these boxes onto a truck. Depending on the shooting schedule that week, no one may have noticed yet that the prop boxes of homeless signs were M.I.A. Because of course, in Los Angeles, the film studios have boxes of “homeless” signs.
A third option then came to mind. Maybe the signs were a part of an upcoming art installation by a sculptor, left out to get a little more grit, to get intentionally rained upon. In any event, it spiced up my ramble quite a bit.
*In case you’re reading this from somewhere less urban than the mean streets of Los Angeles and you are appalled by my focus on the sign content rather than the fact that we have a homeless “problem,” I just want to mention that we are all just fine. Our kids are growing up city kids. Most days I am happy about this and I prefer our kids growing up here rather than a whitewashed, homogenized zone. It’s a choice. Though a life in the suburbs would give Townes and Daisy more green spaces to cycle on and roam over, it’s no secret that the days of kids going out and ambling are largely gone (even for those kids growing up in the burbs). And we know all too well that the boogeymen are much more likely to be trusted family friends and scout leaders than a stranger living in a box. Places like Littleton, CO and Newton, CT have pretty much shattered any confidence I had in the myth of the suburb. William T. Vollman’s Riding Towards Everywhere is a great book for anyone interested in modern day rail riding and its attendant mythology.
I haven't been writing at all for a few months. Many reasons have contributed but at the top of the list has been my desire to spend more free time with the family. I have a lot on my plate at the moment, but want to share a few things now.
I got a new job! I'm now Director of Marketing for a Home Services company in Los Angeles and I could not be more thrilled. After toiling away in the trenches at for the better part of the last five years, I was pleased to happen upon a work-from-home gig. While there is no ping pong table or video game room to recommend its culture (apparently, necessary accoutrements for millenial career satisfaction), I feel a genuine warmth and kindness from the leadership team. It was a humanity I missed during my tenure at uSamp. I'm excited to be starting a new chapter in my career.
No resolutions for me this year, but I'm planning to Ryan Seacrest 2014. I'm on a mission to maximize just about everything. Will share the details over the next few posts.
Happy New Year, everyone. It's gonna be a good one.